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Residents seek answers about town clerk, but so does board

From The Commons –

Selectboard members say they remain in the dark about why an elected official stopped coming to work

Originally published in The Commons issue #427 (Wednesday, September 27, 2017). This story appeared on page A1.

PUTNEY—A number of residents have expressed concern to the Selectboard about why Town Clerk Denise Germon stopped showing up for work more than four months ago — barely three months after her election.

The discussion took place in the context of a broader concern: a series of recent departures of employees from the Town Office, a situation that board members insist is not directly related to Germon’s employment.

According to Selectboard members and Interim Town Manager Chip Stearns, Germon has not spoken with or written to anyone in the Town Office after May 26 [“When a town official stops working, what then?” News, Sept. 13.].

Town officials said they have heard from Germon’s attorney, but that the attorney has not communicated the employee’s intentions.

At the Sept. 13 meeting, resident Eva Mondon addressed the board about Act 27, the new state law that offers state municipalities a path to converting elected positions into appointed ones.

“Gentlemen, is there any way that you can help us? I’m feeling really distraught over almost four months [without a town clerk or treasurer],” Mondon asked.

A way forward with Act 27?

Selectboard members discussed which body has the power to call a town meeting to implement Act 27: the board or the electorate.

Board Clerk Josh Laughlin said he would ask the secretary of state’s office, the town attorney, and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns for their respective readings of the legislation.

“We share your anxieties,” Board Chair Scott Henry replied to Mondon, reminding her of the board’s limited powers.

According to state statute, there is no mechanism for recalling an elected official, and the laws around filling a vacancy don’t apply in this case. This leaves town officials little recourse other than waiting for Germon’s three-year term to expire, for her to return to work, or to resign.

But, with the passage of Act 27, “An act relating to appointing municipal clerks and treasurers and to municipal audit penalties,” during the 2017 Legislative session, voters may have some power to fix this.

Under the law, “if the town votes at Town Meeting to allow for appointment by the Selectboard, 45 days after that vote, the clerk’s term would expire,” Deputy Secretary of State Christopher D. Winters told The Commons.

The law can be applied during an elected official’s term.

If voters will be allowed to originate the request, “I’m happy to petition,” said Mondon.

‘Demonizing Denise’?

Board members assured Mondon that the town is in the clear should the Selectboard call a Special Town Meeting.

Even though the town clerk is charged with running elections and town meetings, Assistant Town Clerk Barbara Taylor can also officiate, and the justices of the peace and town moderator “can help with that,” said Laughlin.

Taylor has run the office with some help from Assistant Treasurer (and former Town Clerk) Anita Coomes since Germon’s absence.

“I’m grateful to you all,” Mondon told the Selectboard, “for staying with this and working so hard and being neutral.”

Resident Greg Wilson didn’t share Mondon’s opinion on the Selectboard’s neutrality.

Board members also assured resident Laura Chapman that she could send a personal letter to Germon asking her to resign “for the sake of our town” or to urge the inactive-but-still-official town official to communicate her intentions to fellow elected officials.

But Wilson cautioned against “demonizing Denise.”

“There may be more light shined on [this issue] in the future,” said Wilson, who did not elaborate on what increased incandescence might reveal.

Laughlin and at least two audience members commented on Germon’s positive qualities, including her intelligence and good work ethic.

“We would like Denise to figure out the best process forward for herself, and however we can be helpful in that process we’re glad to be helpful,” said Laughlin, who added, “the lack of communication [from her] on how to proceed has been difficult on our end.”

Two resignations since July

In addition to the town clerk’s absence, Cynthia Stoddard resigned as town manager at the end of July, and Administrative Assistant Laura Barcomb left in mid-September.

Wilson also asked the board whether “something is happening that’s not meeting the eye,” because of “this, and two other departures from the Town Office.”

“What’s not meeting the eye,” said Laughlin, is the history of “an extremely high level of discomfort created by difficult communications between the clerk and treasurer’s office and the front office” of the town manager.

Laughlin said this animosity existed long before Germon was elected as town clerk and treasurer.

He mentioned the challenges Stoddard and other town staff had when Coomes, then serving in those positions, failed to deposit revenue from dog licenses and did not file taxes and other forms with the state and the Internal Revenue Service.

Coomes’s actions could have cost the town tens of thousands of dollars, but because Stoddard stepped in, the fines were reduced, Laughlin said.

Resident Elizabeth Stead said that “many years ago,” when she tried helping create the annual Town Report, she found it difficult getting the information she needed from Coomes.

“I quit,” she said.

“There’s a long legacy that needs to be changed,” she added. “Denise inherited that legacy.”

Laughlin objected to rumors that any town officers — including Germon — caused Stoddard or Barcomb’s resignations, “other than the fact that [Germon’s absence] created a very stressful, very difficult environment here in Town Hall.”

Laughlin unambiguously sought to put to rest rumors in the community of “wrongdoing” by Germon, calling such theories “totally inappropriate and completely inaccurate.”

“I certainly don’t want to demonize other people who are leaving for personal reasons that had nothing to do with any ill will or ill manner,” said Laughlin.

Resident Wendy Wilson encouraged the Selectboard to communicate with townspeople about this issue, because “most people don’t know.”

Laughlin told attendees the Selectboard “welcomes people to bring [them] rumors” and questions and they will “discuss as much as we legally can.”